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Tragic Intangibility

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"What's it like to hold the hand of someone you love?"
"I may be a deadman, but I'm cursed with memories of the real world! I miss feeling the rain on my face [...] feeling what it's like to eat... to have the juice of a steak trickle down my throat like good wine!"
Deadman, Strange Tales #214
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This trope describes when Intangibility is used to emphasize a character's alienation or separation from others.

Some reasons for the intangibility may be:

  • The character is a ghost.
  • The character has the power of intangibility due to magic or scientific mumbo jumbo and has lost control of the power.
  • The character may be from a different timeline or universe than whoever they are trying to interact with or touch.
  • The character may not be "real," whether they are a hologram, Astral Projection, hallucination, or something even stranger.
  • The character is in love with or very attached to one of the above.

The most ancient form of this trope is when a ghost is unable to hug or kiss their living loved ones even after being reunited, a fantastic symbol for loss. This form of the trope dates back to the ancient Greek works of Classical Mythology, which were imitated by their Roman counterparts. Today, it can also be used in sci-fi stories or superhero fiction that feature people given fantastical abilities like Intangibility. In those stories, an example of Tragic Intangibility may have less to do with death than with a character's sense of social isolation.

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Related to Sense Loss Sadness, Kiss Me, I'm Virtual, You Can See Me?, and often connected with tropes from the Haunted Index. Happy stories dealing with this trope generally end with a First Time Feeling scene. It is a sad, but not uncommon element in stories that go To Hell and Back. See also Separated by the Wall and Window Love, where more literal barriers are used to show a character's alienation.


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Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • Deadman's first appearances would often have him try to touch something, pass through it, and rant aloud about how the killer has taken everything from him. In the first issue, it's just a mouse but in the second issue, he fails to wipe a tear from his lover's face and despairs.
  • In Kingdom Come, the reader is told Martian Manhunter has been left a nervous wreck, but we're only shown it when he's so out of it he can't even reach for a cup of tea without phasing his hand through it.
  • Issue #82 of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the deceased superhero Apparition returns as a ghost visible to her loved ones. They're happy to see her, but without a body, they can't comfort her by holding her hand or letting her rest her head on their shoulder as she processes being dead.
  • In issues 9 and 10 of the New 52 Superman, the villain Anguish reveals she developed her Intangibility as a response to her abusive father. She explains that she can't feel anything and is so afraid of being hurt that she refuses Superman's offer to help her become fully solid again.
  • In Uncanny X-Men #522, Kitty Pryde reunites with her friends after using her phasing ability non-stop for several months. Her boyfriend immediately goes to embrace, only to walk right through her, making everyone realize she can't stop being intangible anymore.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • At the end of Monster House, the old man briefly sees a ghost of his wife and reaches out to her, only to pass through her body just before she disappears. With their house gone, he has nothing left of his wife.
  • A huge part of the plot of Ride Your Wave is that since Minato can only appear in watery reflections, he can't do anything a real boyfriend can. So when Hinako needs someone to help her up when he falls or wants someone to hug her, he can't do anything for her. Hinako refuses to admit this bothers her, but Minato wants better for her and begins to doubt if he's helping her move on.
  • In Rise of the Guardians, guardians are intangible to anyone who doesn't believe in them. This is a major source of angst for Jack Frost, who hasn't had any believers in the centuries he's existed. At the very start of the movie, he's horrified when a child runs through him.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The main character of Blade Runner 2049 is extremely lonely and only has his girlfriend to comfort him. The problem is, she's a hologram he bought to overcome his loneliness, so whenever he tries to kiss her, he's just reminded that she isn't real. Later in the movie, he tries to overcome this by hiring a prostitute to kiss him at the same time the hologram does, so he can at least pretend to be touching his holographic love.
  • Deconstructing Harry: In one of Harry's short stories, Mel (played by Robin Williams) finds out that he's blurry and out-of-focus, and can't do anything about it. Harry starts to fade away too before Cookie talks him out of it.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
    • When Harry uses the Resurrection Stone to bring back his deceased loved ones, he rushes forward to take his mother's hand but his hand goes straight through her. He realizes that the Resurrection Stone can't truly bring back the dead, only a shade of the deceased; however he's still comforted by the fact they're with him in some sense as he prepares to die. It's not mentioned in the book if this is the case, although Harry states that the shades look more solid than ghosts yet not quite like living people.
    • Taking Harry's experience into account, it's implied this played a part in the tragic origin story of the Resurrection Stone; a wizard used it to bring back his deceased love but because she wasn't truly alive, he eventually killed himself so they could properly be together.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • In Thor: The Dark World, Loki attempts to hold his mother's hand, only for it to pass through her and reveal to the audience that she was an illusion. This undermines her attempts to console Loki and assure him that he isn't alone.
    • Ant-Man and the Wasp: Ghost got her intangibility powers as a young girl from the quantum energy accident that killed her parents. This means that when a group of firefighters found her among the wreckage, one of them tried to comfort her with a hug, only for his arms to phase right through her.
  • In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Professor X projects a mental image of himself to try to talk his adopted sister out of going on a killing spree. She dismisses his concerns and strolls through his image, showing how strained the two siblings have become.

    Literature 
  • The Divine Comedy: Having left their bodies behind, all the dead that Dante meets on his journey are just shadows of their former selves that don't breathe, block light, or affect physical matter. This leads to a sad incident when Dante tries to hug his recently deceased friend, Casella, three different times only for his hands to pass through his friend's illusory back.
  • In The Great Divorce, the souls of Hell are so insubstantial that even the blades of grass in Heaven pass through their form. We see several ghosts fail to lift apples, dawdle on one side of the river they can't swim in, and slowly realize that each time they feel excruciating pain whenever anything passes through them, including light.
  • In the fourth book of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Nico di Angelo manages to bring back the ghost of a departed loved one, only to find that their body is made of mist that dissipates as soon as it nears living skin. Even as the ghost tries to console him in his grief, it can't even put a hand on his shoulder.
  • In the Warrior Cats arc The Broken Code, Bramblestar is stuck as a spirit while his body is taken over by an impostor. In The Silent Thaw, Rootpaw is able to make Bramblestar briefly visible to other cats, and when Bramblestar's mate Squirrelflight sees him, she tries to touch her muzzle to his, but she just passes through him.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agent Carter: In Season 2, Jason Wilkes is rendered both intangible and invisible by a Zero Matter explosion early on. While Howard Stark creates a spray that can make him visible in short bursts, any time else he literally cannot even speak due to having intangible vocal chords. He spends much of his arc trying to figure out if and how he can get back to normal and be with Peggy.
  • Doctor Who - When the Tenth Doctor appears before Rose who's trapped in an alternate universe to say goodbye he has to make clear that they can't touch, he's just an image.
  • When Snow White disappears in season 2 of Once Upon a Time, Prince Charming asks to be put under the same Sleeping Curse she was after learning that everyone put under the curse shares dreams, even after the curse has been broken. This gives them the chance to meet again and speak, but upon trying to kiss each other, the two pass through each other, emphasizing that they're only reunited in a passing dream.
  • Red Dwarf: One of the many things that the hologram Rimmer angsts about is the fact that he is initially a soft light hologram and can't touch as a result. As such, when he does regain it, he is shown to be quite happy about it. Put best in the first episode:
    Rimmer: Being a hologram is fine, Lister. I still have the same drives, the same feelings, the same emotions, but I can't touch anything. Never again will I be able to brush a rose against my cheek, cradle a laughing child, or interfere with a woman sexually.
    Lister: Rimmer, you never used to do any of those things anyway!
    Rimmer: But I would have done one day, murderer!
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: In "The Next Phase", Geordi and Ensign Ro are invisible and intangible thanks to a transporter accident, making it impossible for them to interact with their friends and co-workers as they begin to mourn them. The whole incident causes Ro a bit of religious crisis since she assumes their status is the first stage of passing into the afterlife.

    Myths & Religion 
  • The Ur-Example is Achilles' attempt to hug Patroclus's ghost in The Iliad. As he goes to hug him, he passes through him and Patroclus passes into the floor. Achilles agonizes and despairs alone.
  • Odysseus' attempt to hug his mother's ghost not once, but three times in Book XI of The Odyssey, only to pass through her and be left with his sorrow.
  • Virgil uses this device twice in The Aeneid, closely copying the example from The Odyssey.
    • Book II: Aeneas ignores his wife's commands to stop grieving her and he tries to hug her three times, passing through all three times as she fades into shadow.
    • Book VI: As they reunite in Elysium, Aeneas tries to hug the soul of his father, only to touch his hands to his own chest three times. Turns out that while the souls of Elysium look solid, living people cannot touch them.

    Video Games 
  • Azure Striker Gunvolt Series: Joule loses the ability to physically touch Gunvolt after becoming a bodiless spirit in the first game's True Ending. In Mighty Gunvolt Burst, when a virtual world gives her the chance to briefly hold hands with him, she's overjoyed.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • At the end of Final Fantasy X Tidus starts to fade away and Yuna desperately runs to him to embrace him, only to go straight through him and fall down. After she tells him she loves him, Tidus puts his arms around her to hug her as best he can given they can't physically touch anymore.
    • Final Fantasy XIV also features this during the Shadowbringers expansion, as the shade of Ardbert cannot interact with the world around him, apart from speaking to the Warrior of Light. Tragically exemplified when he attempts to warn and rescue two Crystarium soldiers from an incoming Sin Eater, begging for this to "please work" before he passes straight through the creature, his axe finding no purchase.
  • Halo 4 reveals that Cortana has always wanted to touch Master Chief, but couldn't because of her nature as a holographic AI. When she finally can touch him, she dies moments later.

    Web Animation 
  • At one point in Red vs. Blue, the AI Epsilon laments lacking a body and being unable to feel or touch anyone as part of coming to terms that his memories and identity for a long time were never real.

    Webcomics 
  • In El Goonish Shive, Magus is stuck in the plane for 3 years with mostly only hostile Immortals and certain Aberrations as company he can interact with. He laments this to Sirleck.

    Web Original 
  • SCP-085 is a drawing of a young woman on a sheet of paper who can move around on the sheet and speak to people. However, as a two-dimensional drawing, she cannot physically interact with anyone else, and this has caused her to become depressed.

    Western Animation 
  • DC Animated Universe:
    • In episode 2 of Superman: The Animated Series, Clark is given an artifact that projects a pre-recorded message in his mind from his deceased parents from Krypton, Jor-El and Lara-El, who appear as holograms. After telling Clark about his true origins, Lara-El tells Clark they love him, always, while extending her hand towards him. Clark tries to take it, his hand phases through hers, and the message ends.
    • Batman Beyond: An unscrupulous reporter named Ian Peek stole a device that gave him the ability to activate this power at will, so he could spy on anyone he pleased and made a fortune as a celebrity gossip anchor. In the end, he subverted the trend and did suffer the Karmic Death (he not only stole the device, but killed the inventor with a fire he set to cover his tracks). Just a day or so before revealing the identity of Batman, he found that abusing the device would make him permanently intangible. Despite begging Bruce to help him with the promise of retracting his piece, Bruce coldly walks away triggering a fight scene with the then-Batman, until Peek permanently turned intangible and fell through each individual floor of the building he's in, then falling through the basement into the ground, as he laughed helplessly. Terry asked what was going to happen to Ian, and Bruce remarks that he was likely going to keep falling until he hit the core of the Earth. Cue Bond One-Liner, and everyone moves on.
  • The Owl House: Near the end of "Yesterday's Lie", Luz communicates with her mother inside a portal door by projecting herself on a variety of reflective surfaces, including as a hologram-like projection from a car's headlights in the rain. The tragedy comes from the fact that this will be the last time they'll speak to each other for quite a while, made worse by the fact that Camila is deeply hurt because her daughter actually chose to run away and stay in the Demon Realm than live with her.
  • Steven Universe: In a flashback from "Now We're Only Falling Apart", Pink Diamond enters her observation room and turns on a surrounding projection of Amethyst soldiers emerging from the Prime Kindergarten on Earth. She tries to greet one of them by extending her arms and saying "Welcome to Earth", but the Amethyst runs right through her, which painfully reminds Pink of her standing in the Gem hierarchy and how alone she is there.
    Pink: I wish I could just be there.
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